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The Big Future For Tiny Machines

How tiny computers will rewire our world.

The Big Future For Tiny Machines
[Illustration: Raymond Biesinger]

A few weeks ago, while walking around South Park in San Francisco thinking big thoughts, I ran into Alex Klein, the 24-year-old cofounder of Kano, a London-based startup. Kano produces a kid-friendly kit that makes it as easy to build a cool computer that connects to the Internet as it is to create a Minecraft world. I felt like I’d run into Steve Jobs at the Homebrew Computer Club in 1975, and I literally walked into a huge idea.

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Kano, along with Raspberry Pi and Arduino, are tiny computers that are already inspiring a generation of makers to learn to code and become the hackers of tomorrow. But these kits possess the potential to unshackle us from the past and usher in a new world of computing.

Our current infrastructure is built on the decades-old client-server architecture that created the first IT revolution. Whether it’s a PC or one of these Kano computers on a stick, these clients have to use the network to fetch the instructions they need to function. This system worked well in the PC era, and even in the early days of the commercial Internet. But PC makers sold around 100 million machines annually. Compare that to the billions of phones with PC–like powers today. According to ABI Research, there are already more than 16 billion active wireless-connected devices, and that number may exceed 40 billion by 2020.

In theory, we could continue to use the same networking formula for this new world. We would need to keep layering more and more bandwidth between clients and servers, allocating more spectrum, laying more fiber, and using more power to run the servers. Telecom companies are already complaining about the money they’d have to spend to support this future, and the wireless carriers don’t want to invest in faster networks unless they can pass along the cost to their customers.

For the longest time, computers have been associated with work. Mainframes were for the Army, government agencies, and then large companies. Workstations were for engineers and software programmers. PCs were initially for other white-collar jobs. Now we can take that processing power, shrink it down, and put it in cars, thermostats, lightbulbs, and music systems. People are using Raspberry Pi and Arduino kits to make intelligent toys, lamps, alarm clocks, picture frames, and small robots. Those billions of connected devices will be nearly invisible, low-power computers whose primary job will be to gather data from sensors. If we connect them all the same way we’ve always done it, they are going to put a hernia-inducing strain on our wired and wireless networks.

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These devices are only going to get smaller and more powerful. You can buy a Raspberry Pi with a 700 MHz processor and 256 MB of memory for about $25. In 2001, a Mac with 450 MHz and 64 MB of RAM cost $1,800. Arduino components are already smaller than a quarter, and prices on Pi and its brethren will likely drop to just a few dollars by the turn of the decade.

What we need to do, then, is accept that all the pieces that once went inside a beige box will now be embedded everywhere, and that we’ll reconnect them in new and interesting ways. It is as if someone scattered and mixed together a few boxes of Lego and the old rules don’t apply. In this world, is it hard to imagine a server the size of a deck of cards that plugs into the back of your Wi-Fi router or TV and runs your house? Or Pandora’s entire music database on a stick that you plug into your car and stream using a mesh network of these small devices rather than the Internet? The tiny-computer-distributed networking era will present a whole new set of software challenges and opportunities, but to folks like Alex Klein of Kano, it may be a walk in the park.

About the author

Om Malik is a partner at True Ventures, an early-stage investor. He is also founder of Gigaom, a Silicon Valley–based, tech-focused publishing company.

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